WASHINGTON — On the eve of Senate hearings into what some see as an epidemic of sexual assault in the military, a top Republican announced he will oppose efforts to remove the chain of command from court-martial decisions.
Sen. Jim Inhofe, R-Okla., ranking Republican on the Senate Armed Services Committee, said Monday he is willing to make changes in the Uniform Code of Military Justice and to provide improved legal counsel for victims of sexual assault, but he opposes a complete overhaul of the military justice system.
The Joint Chiefs and Coast Guard commandant are scheduled to testify Tuesday before the armed services committee on their views about seven pending bills that address rape and sexual assault cases.
Several of the bills attempt to remove or diminish the role of commanders in court-martial decisions in sexual assault cases, from deciding which cases to prosecute to whether to agree with a verdict or sentence if a service member is convicted.
Inhofe said he views much of the legislation introduced in Congress on military sexual assault to be an overreaction. “Lately, we have been bombarded, inundated with news reports about sexual assault in the military,” he said.
“Our nation cannot lose sight of the fact we have the finest military in the world,” he said. “The presence of sexual predators in our forces does not take away from the overwhelming good that is done around the world by our members in uniform.”
Congress has passed legislation before on attempting to prevent sexual assault, including 10 provisions in the 2013 defense authorization bill that “commanders have barely had time to begin implementing,” he said. “You cannot keep piling new demands on our commanders until they have had time to meet the previous demands.”
One of the bills expected to get attention Tuesday is the Military Justice Improvement Act, sponsored by Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., chairwoman of the armed services committee’s military personnel panel.
Her bill would remove the chain of command from any significant role in courts-martial unless a service member faced military-specific charges, such as failure to obey an order or being absence without leave.
Inhofe said he opposed this idea. “We have got to preserve the leadership tools that make our forces the finest in the world,” he said. “One such tool has been to give commanders authority to identify and correct problems firmly and fairly, and dispose of disciplinary offenses that destroy morale and readiness.
“To take the commander out of the process will invite failure,” he said. “These commanders have to make decisions to send our brave troops into battle. How ludicrous is it would could say to our commanders ‘You’ve got to make a decision to send our kids into battle where they may end up losing their lives. However, you cannot participate in the justice system of the troops.’ It doesn’t make any sense at all.”
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